NOLA Public School district officials asked Orleans Parish School Board members on Tuesday to formally request that the New Orleans City Council rescind a recent resolution inserting city administration into a special city education grant process — one that historically went directly to the district.
In early January, a majority-outgoing New Orleans City Council voted to add the Mayor’s Office of Youth and Families into the annual process for proposing uses for the Harrah’s Fund education grants — money paid to the city by the casino as part of a lease agreement.
The School Board and council have been at odds over the funds for more than a year, as council members made it clear their priorities had shifted from district-overseen K-12 programs to early childhood education, which is largely administered by nonprofit groups rather than district schools. But district officials say the money supports critical systemwide work for vulnerable youth.
The money was previously used exclusively for school district priorities. It was most recently used for three programs serving students in jail, struggling with truancy or with severe behavioral issues. But a new lease signed between the casino and city in 2020 no longer explicitly directed funds to the district. Instead, it included a new provision broadening the council’s ability to direct the funding to “education,” at members’ discretion.
“We have continually used these funds to support programming at the Travis Hill School [at the city’s jail], the Center for Resilience [the behavioral program] and Student Support Center [the truancy program],” district Community Relations Director Justin McCorkle said at an OPSB committee meeting Tuesday. “The students in these programs are some of our most vulnerable.”
“The trauma caused by this public health crisis will be carried and embodied for the longest time by the youth that are living through it right now,” McCorkle said.
“Board members, we are asking that on behalf of the district that the council rescind (the resolution),” he said. “We ask for authorization to pursue the restoration and allocation of past unallocated Harrah’s school support funds to OPSB.”
The district had to fight for $1.5 million for the three programs last spring, but council members told Superintendent Henderson Lewis Jr. not to count on the funding in the future.
On Tuesday, board members were happy to chime in in support of such an action.
Board member J.C. Romero said the Harrah’s funding conundrum was one of the most frustrating things he encountered last year. He said he talked to many frustrated school leaders as well.
“It was just a hot mess express.”
Board president Ethan Ashley had stronger words.
“You’re being way too kind in what happened with the council,” Ashley said, referring to McCorkle’s presentation. “There was no conversation, there was no discussion, about their changing priorities with this board. Only one council member has ever been in this chamber with this board and that’s Jason Williams.” (Williams, a former at-large council member, was elected Orleans Parish District Attorney in 2020.)
“You’ve been way too kind about what happened,” Ashley said. “They made a decision without us — about us. This happens way too often and that shouldn’t be the case.”
While the board did not take a formal action Tuesday, a resolution may be considered at its full meeting on Thursday.
Ashley noted the City Council has scheduled a special meeting on Monday to address crime in the city.
“Everyone is talking about, ‘These kids are not in school’ — yet you take money from the school district that is trying to keep kids in school,” Ashley said. “It was wrong that they took the money and didn’t have the conversation with us that you would have with a critical partner.”
When the council voted earlier this month to change the Harrah’s Fund process Ashley submitted a public comment, urging the council to reconsider the change and build a better relationship with the school board. He chiefly blamed the switch on a poor relationship between the two entities, which he stressed on Tuesday he would like to improve.
Board member Nolan Marshall Jr. pointed to the recently created Innovation and Stability Committee.
“We have to break down the silos between governmental agencies and other organizations,” he said. “We as a board have moved forward to rectify that by creating this committee. Everyone will have a seat at the table so that we don’t have these problems in the future.”
Board members also had quite a bit of criticism for their hired superintendent search firm after the group failed to draw more than 30 people to eight virtual community input sessions earlier this month.
The district’s superintendent search firm, Greenwood Asher and Associates, presented a superintendent position profile. Firm co-founder Betty Asher said the group has received “a number of nominations.”
“There are some basic things everyone is speaking about of course that is they want a new superintendent to view everything through an equity lens,” she said, noting many people expressed interest in strong charter management, a familiarity with trauma from disasters and willingness to address the learning gap that has occurred during the pandemic.
“They also talk about the use of metrics to get real accountability, strong accountability,” she said.
Board member Katie Baudouin asked how the firm’s minimum requirement of a master’s or doctorate degree in education fit the board’s desire to attract a diverse pool of candidates, including non-traditional candidates, perhaps from a different field.
“It doesn’t,” board president Ethan Ashley piped up quickly. “I think that language can be changed.”
Board members also questioned the firm’s community outreach.
Malena Joseph Micthell, the vice president of public relations at the Spears Group which is assisting with the search, said they’ve developed an “action plan” to address future meetings following the poorly attended virtual meetings.
Ashley said State Representatives Delisha Boyd, Royce Duplesses and Jason Hughes were all willing to host an engagement event in their districts regarding the search.
Baudouin also asked that the firm communicate directly with schools so they can share information about the community meetings with parents. She said she did not hear about the meetings from her children’s school.
Romero also offered feedback.
“I’m going to be super honest. We know the community engagement sessions were poor, we had low turnout. I want to make sure I knew step by step what it took for a parent to engage in a session,” he said. “I realized it was more complicated than I’d like it to be.”
“The first meeting I went to, it was low turnout,” he said. “Then the second meeting I went to there were technical issues and after 15 minutes I logged off because no one let me into the room.”
“When I engage in this I do so with the lens of my mother who cannot read or write,” he said. “Please share with the board how this will be better to ensure access to these sessions is stronger.”
Ashley and Romero both asked that the firm drop the registration requirement. Romero noted some people may not want to give their name to attend a meeting open to the public.
“You all need to track those numbers in a different way,” Ashley said.
Firm representatives said they plan to host eight additional community sessions, though it is unclear if those are all open to the public or targeted to specific groups of stakeholders.